Norman Mailer will not R.I.P.
November 24 / 25, 2007
By SAUL LANDAU
As a teenager, I learned to appreciate fiction by reading The Naked
and the Dead. High school teachers force fed us The Odyssey and The
Iliad and other "classics," but Mailer gave teenage boys thirsty for
sex and violence (vicariously, of course) a reason to read.
In the 1960s, Mailer turned anti-war activist and reporter. Not all
his books succeeded in achieving the literary excellence he demanded,
but he retained his courage and determination to express ideas about
subjects most writers avoid.
In his personal life he often behaved like an immature,
publicity-seeking asshole, picking fights and causes without thought.
In that sense he also represented a large stain and strain of
American life. His death at 84 represents a loss of a national treasure.
The obituaries on Norman Mailer offer little or no space to his
literary contribution that offers unique insight into the Cold War.
Harlot's Ghost explored the U.S.-Soviet clash as no historian or
sociologist dared -- or had the capacity to probe.
By using Herrick "Harry" Hubbard, a CIA officer, as his protagonist
who somehow finds himself present at CIA designed coups, failed
invasions (Bay of Pigs) and other Cold War milestones, Mailer
explores the real life acting company that played its parts in the
four decade long drama of the late 20th Century, a group of
spiritually agitated -- even bored -- Nabobs and lower class types
they were forced to acquire acting out a dangerous high stakes game.
Like their playboy ancestors in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, these
capricious and irresponsible adult brats, who eschewed concepts like
patriotism and loyalty, thought to satisfy their whims by playing
Cold War on the world stage.
Mailer, through fiction, showed the ridiculous world of the Ivy
League preachers and professors, the sons and daughters of old
wealth, who wrote the script for the supposed clash of Mammoth
Powers. The United States has not had a rival since England. It
created the Soviet Union as a super power in order to play the most
exciting game in all of history, one that became downright
frightening in 1949 when the Soviets achieved nuclear weapons.
The Soviets possessed nothing but those weapons to challenge U.S.
power. They never developed a viable economy; nor did they achieve
the ability to export a competitive culture -- a la Hollywood and
Madison Avenue. Imagine, Soviets programming TV and radio stations
and trying to offer fare equal to 24/7 shopping, flesh almighty and
bang bang bang!
Mailer begins his novel in the early 1980s. He picks up from F. Scott
Fitzgerald in describing the wealthy and irresponsible WASPs in New
England, a man with a solid reputation, a pedigreed wife (at home)
and an equally aristocratic, but much hotter mistress -- his cousin no less.
Harry's godfather and guru, Harlot, has apparently blown himself away
-- like some real CIA bigwigs did. In this case, the dead man
represented counterintelligence. But, like several CIA hotshots, he
may have been a KGB mole. Indeed, his death might also fall into the
realm of cloak and daggerdom.
Harry's wife, Kittredge, once Harlot's femme fatale, has been bonking
Harry's CIA pal and sometimes foe, Dix Butler. Dix adores criminal
behavior and will commit almost any bizarre act to make money --
including assassinate his wife. Mailer's characters covering walk in
and out of episodes that cover decades of personal and national
misalliances and betrayals. At each turn, the reader finds the
leaders of U.S. "intelligence" to lack any ideological foundation
except to their own capricious pleasures.
The top CIA dogs in the book helped create the myth of Soviet power
while politicians and media flaks sold their bullshit to the public.
Mailer explores major CIA fiascos carried out in the name of
advancing freedom or gathering advantages in the Cold War: In the
1950s, they dug the Berlin Tunnel under KGB headquarters only to
discover they had fallen into a KGB trap; they launched the invasion
of Cuba after convincing themselves Cuba would fall like Guatemalan
President Arbenz did in 1954 in a similar "invasion." The inventors
of these plans really don't care about consequences -- then or now.
Mailer also explores assassination plots -- and the bizarre set of
assassins the Agency chose -- to kill Castro.
We meet the top dogs, like Allen Dulles and the psychopathic planners
of hits, like, E. Howard Hunt. The history of the CIA is after all
the abbreviated nuts and bolts of Cold War history.
The characters playing the lead roles are seriously disturbed. A CIA
psychologist plays with deadly drugs and studies the psychic
processes by which covert ops adapt to multiple identities -- all
this nonsense in the name of defending freedom.
The WASPS who lead the adventurous game know the Soviets pose no
threat. When Harry, the eager young CIA op discovers that the Soviets
never adjusted their railroad gauges to coincide with those of
Eastern Europe, thus making impossible a notion of supplying troops
invading Western Europe, his superior tells him not to report that
information. If the public should get wise that the CIA and its
political and media cohorts had invented the "Soviet threat" to
attack the West, the Cold War would end -- and with it the grand
adventure. The mass media never reported this "little fact." Imagine
pubic reaction to a report that the supposed Soviet attack plan
against the West required supplies for its armies to stop at the
Eastern Europe borders, get unloaded onto trucks and then reloaded
onto different trains! Hardly a scenario for lightning surprise attack!
The gurus of Mailer's great game are Protestant ministers, literature
professors, rock climbing addicts and practitioners of sexual
perversity -- much like the old European aristocracy for whom old
fashioned sex had become a yawn.
Mailer had previously reported on the Vietnam War, spoken at anti-war
demonstrations and wrote an allegorical novel (Why Are We In
Vietnam?) using a group of Texans hunting grizzly bears in Alaska as
his metaphor for U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia. Americans hunt
whatever happens to be around, the novel suggests. Vietnam presented
the leading hunters (Presidents) with a chance to seek a new kind of
prey. And they use technology to achieve their success: helicopters
to help them find and destroy the bears. Yet, there is a trace of
admiration, even longing in Mailer's often comic descriptions of the
super macho characters. This short but pugnacious Jewish intellectual
wanted to be a tough guy, and when he tried to be one at cocktail
parties or luncheons, he invariably made a fool of himself. And his
behavior found its way into the media.
His bad boy image, however, didn't stop Mailer from expressing his
insights into the real tough guys, the killers who didn't seem to
possess a soul, who could not be explained by poverty or parental
abuse. Such a character, Gary Gilmore, became central in The
Executioner's Song, where Mailer paints an original picture of what
Joan Didion called "that vast emptiness at the center of the Western
experience, a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to
most other forms of human endeavor, a dread so close to zero that
human voices fadeout, trail off, like skywriting." (New York Times,
October 7, 1979)
Mailer writes a painful sketch of Gary Gilmore, the murderer. He
offers a detailed sociological fact sheet on Mormon passivity in the
face of a killer in their midst. He analyzes and explains the
absurdities of the police and legal system before a person gets executed.
Mailer tackled the big issues: war, corruption, hypocrisy at the
He also loved publicity and the art of coining the perfect phrase. He
was homophobic and misogynistic. Indeed, Mailer never learned to
portray women in a realistic dimension. He clearly didn't understand
them; not a comment on his six wives.
Mailer understood American duplicity, the fog of religious-based
freedom rhetoric that covers the most devious political behavior. He
also understood the banality that marries heroism in war. In The
Naked and The Dead the six remaining platoon members share a mission.
A Jew, some non Jews and a few anti-Semites, some learned and some
ignorant, all share the same horrid conditions on a Pacific island.
This is Mailer's American democracy, the bonding of mismatches in
battlefield conditions. Equally American is the troops killing
Japanese POWs and stealing souvenirs from enemy corpses. They worry
about their wives screwing other guys while feeling a little uneasy
about screwing other women. Then, they discover their mission --
which killed more than half of them -- meant absolutely nothing in
winning the war. He could have been writing about almost any war.
Saul Landau writes a regular column for CounterPunch and
progresoweekly.com. His new Counterpunch Press book is A BUSH AND
BOTOX WORLD. His new film, WE DON'T PLAY GOLF HERE (on globalization
in Mexico) won the VIDEOFEST 2007 Award for best activist video. The
event was held in October at the Roxie Theater. The film is available